A majority of Americans now believe total anonymity’s a pipe dream, despite wishing it were otherwise, to paraphrase a Pew Internet survey of 792 people published on Thursday.
Count me among them, though less in the “wishing it were otherwise” column. And yes, that implies I’m — gulp! — not exactly put out by the notion that anonymity may be a lost cause on the Internet.
Or something like that. Before you throw me to the wolves, I recognize that anonymity can be critical when it involves things like whistleblowers, law enforcement shakedowns, or something as fundamental as casting a vote in a democracy.
But I’ve never been circumspect about stuff like my name (never an alias, if it’s available) or posting pictures online (not that I post many), and the question I’ve been asking lately is this: How much of our desire for online anonymity has less to do with highfalutin talk about psychological liberation than an impulse to micromanage for micromanagement’s sake — a Type A desire to wrestle with a bugaboo, and pros be damned.
Consider this Slate piece, coincidentally published a day before the Pew study. The title minces no words: “We Post Nothing About Our Daughter Online.” In it, the author explains how she and her husband are shielding their daughter from “facial recognition, Facebook profiling, and corporate data mining” by preventing information — and above all, imagery — from traveling online until their daughter is old enough to take responsibility for her identity. It’s a noble sounding sentiment, but I think also a wrongheaded one.
Who’s the problem if Facebook misuses information about my child — Facebook or me? Isn’t the onus on Facebook not to violate its terms and conditions? And if those terms and conditions include assembling profiles and targeted advertising and informational handoffs to potentially intrusive third parties, do the downsides of having to deflect the spam and hucksterism outweigh the upsides of being able to instantly share priceless moments with family and friends? Should we stop using technology that improves our lives because it might also in some ways unmask us or our children?
Take my own 13-month-old son, pictures of whom my wife and I occasionally drop into our family- and friend-restricted Facebook feeds. Does the algorithm-driven dossier Facebook might be assembling on our son based on said photos mean he’ll be “haunted” in adulthood somehow? That he’ll be any more liable to be bullied by kids with their own virtual paper trails? Don’t we deprive what we fear (bias, embarrassment) of its power when exposure becomes the norm instead of the exception?
If a university my son applied to used online information about him out of context to inappropriately profile, do we have a technology problem or a university problem? Would you want your child to matriculate at a university that blinkered?
Severing the information flow doesn’t stop companies from behaving badly — stopping companies from behaving badly does. And in any event, I’m not convinced that keeping your child’s identity or pictures offline is a firewall when you’re required to share information in other aspects of their life as a matter of course.
Rather than quarantine my child from the hypothetical machinations of biased universities and snooping companies and pushy vendors (and while still taking sensible precautions), I plan to teach him how to live in a world where bias and snooping and pushiness were all too common long before the Internet showed up. That’s the challenge, as far as I’m concerned. There is no adulthood, digital or otherwise, free of bias and presupposition — never was, and never will be.